“May your feet ever walk in the light of two suns… and may the moonshadow never fall on you… ”—Robert Fanney
This week my assignment for the 52 photo challenge was to capture shadows. I had originally thought it might be nice to drive downtown and look for interesting shapes, but time got away from me and I settled on playing around at home.
The first eight photos were taken in my daughter’s bedroom and are of my own shadow. The rest were taken in the backyard. The hummingbird and owl are metal cutouts that usually sit in my planters, but I moved them around to create these images.
Last week was hard for me. I cried a lot and reached a new part of my healing and these photos are a part of that expression. I hope these photos bring you as much joy as they did me. Let me know if you have a favorite and have a fantastic week!
Photos were taken with an Olympus OM-D and edited with ON1 Photo RAW
If you want to join the 52 Photo Challenge, you can find all the information at nicolesy.com
There’s a massive maple tree outside Nudgee’s new house that’s covered in golden orange and yellow leaves nearly as big as his wicker lunchbox. With wide brown eyes, he stares up into the twisted branches trying to locate the source of an odd clicking sound he’s been hearing since they moved into this small, yellow house two weeks ago. It’s driving him crazy.
He catches a brief glimpse of something shiny and black, but a gusty breeze makes the leaves wiggle and sway and he loses it. Shoot! This place isn’t anything like his real home. He picks up a small rock and throws it at one of the branches, but he’s small for his age and it doesn’t go very far.
“I know you are up there!”
“Who are you talking to?”
Holding her favorite “Live, Laugh, Love” coffee cup with both hands, his mother appears in the doorway wearing her old faded blue bathrobe. Her thick, black hair is rolled up into dozens of pink foam curlers and she’s wearing a pair of dad’s old, grey socks which are too big and floppy. Nudgee thinks she looks like an alien and wishes she’d go back inside.
“It’s going to be okay, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“First days are hard, but you got this.”
His mother’s neon blue nails flash in the morning sunlight and Nudgee stomps away in his brown, leather boots to the end of the driveway. He’s 11 years old and that’s old enough to know his mother can’t be sure things will be okay. Why do adults insist on saying things that aren’t true? How about being more honest by saying “I hope it will be okay” or “it might not be okay but you are strong and can handle it.”
Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!
Nudgee turns around to see his mother leaning against the small rectangular doorbell. With a kind of stumbling shuffle, she steps back and spills her coffee down the front of her robe. Her big blue eyes look droopy with dark smudges of yesterday’s mascara. Nudgee’s worried she might start crying again.
“Ouch! Damn it! Shit! Sorry, lovebug! I’m okay.”
Go inside. Go inside. Go inside. Nudgee turns away from his mom and chants the words like a magic spell and when he doesn’t hear anything for a few minutes he turns back around to find she’s gone. It worked.
The familiar rumbling sound of a school bus turns his attention forward. He straightens out his green plaid jacket and tucks his thick, tawny curls inside a bubble-shaped tan hat. A fluttering of nervous energy makes him feel jumpy and he considers simply running down the street. How long would it take to run 100 miles? Didn’t his best friend’s mom say he’d be welcome back anytime?
All morning Nudgee didn’t actually think he’d be going to school. Things have been terrible since his father left, and part of him expected his dad to show up in his black El Camino saying it was all just a big misunderstanding. Yes, mom cheated, sure, but dad wouldn’t leave his little “pollywog” behind forever. He loves him. Right?
The yellow school bus door opens outward with a loud swooshing sound and a lean man with small, round glasses stares down at Nudgee blinking softly. He’s got grey hair, a large bushy mustache, and pale pink lips. Tipping his colorful plaid hat with a gloved hand, he gives the boy a wide warm smile.
“Are you Nudgee?”
He pronounces his name perfectly with a smooth, deep voice, and Nudgee nods. There’s a small golden pin on the collar of the bus driver’s blue shirt in the shape of a snail. Nudgee’s old neighbor, Mr. Arnold, used to pay him a penny a snail to collect them from his garden and destroy them, but he always let them go in the park instead. He liked their weird stalky eyes.
“Oh, good. All aboard!”
Drawing out the last word like an old-timey train conductor, Nudgee smiles. He likes this bus driver. His feet, however, don’t want to cooperate. It’s as if he’s been cemented to the sidewalk and all he can do is look at his boots in frustration while picturing all the kids inside the bus staring at him and making the determination if he will or won’t fit in. His stomach hurts.
With smooth, careful movements the bus driver gets out of his seat, walks down the three stairs, and reaches his gloved hand out to Nudgee. Before he can really think about it, he’s followed the old man onto the bus. He walks down the narrow aisle, staring at the creased lines of the black floor toward the rear of the bus while trying hard to not make eye contact with anyone.
There are no strange whispers or points as he walks, just the regular sounds of kids talking and laughing with each other. It makes Nudgee feel better. As he reaches the rear of the bus he looks up to see two girls playing on some kind of touch screen to his left, and a large boy with fluffy blonde hair sleeping to his right. With a red, white, and blue sweatband around his head, the boy hugs his backpack like a stuffed animal and snores slightly. Nudgee almost squeezes in next to him, but a low calm voice stops him.
“Don’t do it. Roger will drool on you. I, unfortunately, know from experience. It’s a bad idea. ”
Taking a step forward, Nudgee finds a small-framed boy sitting alone against the window of the very last seat with his hands folded on his lap. He’s got shiny black hair, cut short, and small dark eyes. With a wink, he motions to the seat beside him and Nudgee sits down.
“Do you know what Krav Maga is? I didn’t either until I looked it up. It’s some kind of fighting thing the Israeli military uses in battle. Well, Roger says he studies it, but I doubt it. He mostly sleeps and grunts. I think he’s sad.”
The boy points at the seat in front of them and gives a sort of pained look. He’s got deep dimples, dark thin eyebrows, and delicate small hands. The boys smile at each other.
“Oh, thank you.”
The boy puts out his hand and Nudgee shakes it. There’s something familiar about him as if they’ve met before, and it makes the jumpiness inside him calm down. He sighs and settles back in his seat with his lunchbox on his lap.
“I’m Akiamo but most people call me Aki. My mom says it’s not okay to change your name, but I didn’t exactly change it. I just think it’s easier to have a short name. You know? People can never say my name right anyway. Are you new?”
He’s wearing brown and white striped pants, a brown button-up jacket, and shiny brown shoes. There’s a leather knapsack on the seat beside him which is slightly open exposing books, notepads, and several glass jars. Nudgee nods and sets his lunchbox next to Aki’s leather bag.
As he says his name, he braces himself for the inevitable question “what kind of name is that?” He’s used to having to explain that his parents found it in a book and thought it sounded cool. He hopes Aki won’t mention it rhymes with “pudgy” or “fudgy.”
“Wow. What a cool name! I think I’ve read it before in a book. I’m certain of it. Sounds like perhaps a warrior or an explorer. I bet it looks cool as your signature with those double e’s at the end. Can you show me?”
He pulls out a small pad of yellow paper and a bright silver pen. Nudgee writes his name several times across the paper in flowy black letters. He likes how smooth the fine tip writes. Never has writing his name felt so fun as with Aki. They smile at each other again.
“Our dog had a litter of puppies last night. They’re all fat and white with eyes glued shut. You should come to see them.”
Aki pauses for a moment and looks out the window.
“I sometimes wish my eyes were glued shut, but mom says I shouldn’t say such things. It’s just that sometimes you can see too much. You know?”
Nudgee knows and nods. He remembers the night dad came back from his business trip and found Mr. Lobel in the bedroom with mom. He was naked when he ran out the front door, his white butt looked scary and ghostlike in the moonlight. Then the screaming began.
“Are you hungry? My mom always makes me a big breakfast, but I honestly can’t eat before I get on the bus. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because up until the moment I climb into my seat I’m pretty sure I’m going to get out of going to school. I just expect something to happen, you know? Like a miracle or something. Anyway, you hungry?”
Aki pulls out a small glass jar filled with cut apples. Nudgee takes one and to his delight finds it tastes like honey and cinnamon. It’s his favorite snack.
“Good, huh? My mom gets all our fruit from this organic vendor at the farmer’s market. She knows I have an aversion to anything meat or bread related, so she gives me all these little jars of fruits and vegetables. I used to bring dried seaweed, which is my favorite thing, but kids thought it smelled weird. It’s okay though.”
They finish the apples together in silence as the bus stops several times and more kids get on. Nobody else wanders to the far back and Nudgee realizes why Aki likes it so much. If it wasn’t for the terrible bounciness, it would be almost peaceful.
When the bus stops at a red light, Aki suddenly gasps and points out the window. Nudgee scoots closer, squishing the two bags between them and looks at where he’s pointing. There’s a strange black bird sitting on top of a parked yellow VW bug. It’s nearly as big as the roof of the car. It turns and looks at them with bright red eyes and makes a loud clicking sound.
“What is that thing?” Nudgee says.
“I have no idea, but nobody ever sees it but me. It’s always making that horrible sound. You see it right? You really do?”
“Huge black bird with weird blue beak and creepy red eyes. Yep. I see it.”
It hops off the car and starts walking across the street toward them. The clicking sound increases as it gets closer. Suddenly it swoops into the air and dives toward the bus.
“Shoot!” Nudgee says.
They jump to their feet and work together to pull the big glass window closed. The bird reaches the window far before it closes, but it doesn’t try to get inside. Instead, it just hovers and watches them.
The light turns green and the bus starts moving down the street again, but the bird remains right outside the window, clicking its beak wildly. It blinks, a sort of milky membrane covering its shiny red eyes, and then disappears with a puff of blue smoke. Nudgee scrambles over the two bags and stands in the aisle holding onto the back of the seat.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. It’s never done that before.”
Aki pulls out a tattered-looking notebook filled with drawings of the strange bird. There are scribbled notes all over the margins. He puts both bags against the window and motions for Nudgee to sit beside him. Shakily, he does and realizes nobody on the bus has even looked in their direction.
“I’ve been seeing the birds for years, but usually they just stare at me and blink. I’ve taken out every book about birds from the library, including mythologies and legends, but I can’t find anything about this particular creature. Nothing at all. Have you seen one before?”
Nudgee shakes his head but then suddenly remembers the sound he’s been hearing since arriving in town.
“Not before now, but I started hearing that clicking sound the day we moved in and I think one was in my tree this morning. What do you think it wants with us?”
“I don’t know. Are you a witch or something?”
Both boys laugh at the absurdity of the question but quietly consider it. Nudgee knows his family history does include “healing women,” but he’s never really considered what that means. Aki has heard similar things about “mystics” in his own family. Could they be magical in some way?
When the bus pulls into the school, the boys gather up their bags and follow the other kids as they slowly exit the bus. Before Nudgee can take in the enormity of the brick schoolhouse, Aki grabs his arm and guides him away from the front entrance. He doesn’t want to be late to class, but he has a feeling this is more important than school.
They follow a dirt path along the edge of the building behind a row of large, spiky hedges. Aki runs his left hand along the bricks as he walks and Nudgee copies him. It feels cool and rough.
This is not how Nudgee pictured his first day of middle school, but there’s something about this new friend he trusts. After all, they just saw a magical bird together and that’s more exciting than anything he could learn in school today. Aki stops at the sharp corner of the building and Nudgee bumps into him.
Aki smiles but puts his finger up to his lips.
“It’s okay but be quiet. Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
Aki doesn’t answer but instead holds his bag to his chest and sprints across an empty cement courtyard. Nudgee follows. They reach a small grove of scraggly trees with peeling white bark. The ground is covered with chip bags and candy wrappers.
Aki walks through it without pausing, stepping over garbage and through a large row of dense bushes. They climb down a small rocky embankment and walk a few more minutes until they enter a grove of old oak trees. Aki stops to pick up an acorn and hand it to his friend.
“I come here to think,” he says. “I want to show you my favorite spot.”
Stepping through streaks of golden sunlight and over dozens of fallen logs, the boys wind their way through a dense forest of tall trees until they reach a small clearing. A narrow creek flows between two large moss-covered boulders making a gentle babbling sound. Dropping their bags, the boys kneel down and put their hands in the cold water. Tiny tadpoles and minnows swim by. Nudgee feels a sudden surge of happiness, the first time he’s felt this good since his father left.
“Wow. It’s beautiful here.”
Before Aki can answer, the sound of clicking fills the air. The boys look up to see the strange black bird perched on one of the boulders staring at them. Without standing, the boys hold hands and listen as the clicks become softer and then start to sound like words. It’s a high-pitched voice wobbly and unclear at first, but then it suddenly shifts and they can understand it.
“Hello, my friends.”
The boys say nothing as another large black bird lands on the second boulder. Both birds stare at the boys. Wind rushes through the forest releasing brown and yellow leaves from the trees to dance around them with a low rustling sound.
“We mean you no harm,” the bird says.
Aki squeezes his new friend’s hand and then lets go. He stands up and steps slowly forward, putting his hands out in front of him. Both birds shift slightly and lower their heads in a small bow.
“We don’t want to harm you either. Leave my friend out of this. What do you want with me?”
“You both need to come with us. We’ve been waiting for you. We need your help.”
Nudgee stands and takes Aki’s hand again, grasping it tightly. They are in this together, and although they are both still scared, it’s hard to not be excited by a talking bird and the possibility of adventure. It sure beats schoolwork.
“Go with you where?” Nudgee says.
“Our world is in danger and you are the only two who can save us. There isn’t time. It might be too late already. Please, we need your help.”
With a silent flapping of their wings the birds swoop down, landing in front of the boys. Tucking their legs underneath their bodies, both birds spread out their massive wings and lower themselves onto their bellies. Aki and Nudgee embrace, giving each other courage and encouragement. One bird speaks quickly while the other makes a series of clicking sounds.
“Climb on, please. We have to go. There’s no time.”
With a final look at each other, the boys climb onto the backs of the giant black birds. Grabbing a handful of the soft neck feathers, they brace themselves as the birds gently stand and soar into the cool autumn morning. With a puff of blue smoke, they are transported to a pink sky over a sea of bright blue. The adventure has just begun.
Author’s note: I was stalled on this prompt for most of the week while my kids both suffered from a pretty intense case of strep throat. For some reason, I was interpreting “magic in everyday occurrences” in a very narrow way trying to make it be a coincidence or perhaps the kind of magic you feel when falling in love. Neither of those ideas was working for me though and I turned to my kids for ideas.
My son blurts out, “two kids see something magical out a window on a school bus, easy, boom!” Just like that, I was off and this tale was born. Partway through I realized it could also be a nod to one of our family’s favorite children’s books we’d read when they were sick, “Frog and Toad.” That story of friendship is magical in so many ways and so Nudgee (Aboriginal word meaning green frog) and Akiamo (Japanese for autumn mountain) were born.
I hope you enjoyed this story and thanks so much for reading. Your comments and likes mean the world to me. Have a wonderful week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 39
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about magic in everyday occurrences. We had to include the words Krav Maga, touch screen, litter, vendor, doorbell, finish, hungry, aversion, signature, and sweatband.
“Where the rolling sea meets the sand you will find the ancient ocean man. Sit still and listen if you can to broken sea shells in shaking hands.” -Old Sea Proverb
Vanora squats beside a rotting pile of kelp to examine the tiny insects buzzing around it. The golden tinge of sunset makes their wings appear delicate and translucent. They must be a kind of fly or gnat and she wonders how long their lifespan is. Probably days or perhaps only hours.
A wave of nausea hits and she falls forward in the sand on aching, aging knees. When did she last eat something? Breakfast was a large bowl of fresh strawberries and a cup of weak coffee in an off-white mug with a slight chip along the rim. She’d almost cut her lip but noticed at the last second and turned the mug.
The rest of the day is blurry and Vanora doesn’t like when her memories aren’t clear. Her grey hair smells of coconut shampoo and it’s braided back so the wind doesn’t tangle it. She must have showered and taken a nap. She feels clean and rested in black leggings and a loose purple sweater, but awfully hungry. She probably forgot to eat again.
For most of her life, she’s been a writer, always scribbling herself notes, poems, snippets of song lyrics, and endless to-do lists. Her novels were never on the New York Times Best Seller list, but she’s proud of how they reflect her as a mother and a woman. In the last few years, however, the words won’t come. The notes she leaves herself now are cryptic and upsetting. It’s as if she speaks a different language each day and there’s no global translator.
It’s hard to accept such a drastic change within herself, particularly as most of the time she feels like the same person—viewing the world through a lens of flowery words, colorful contrasts, and abstract connections. Yet her mind doesn’t hold everything at once anymore—sand running through a sieve collecting only the bits and pieces large enough to not fall through. It feels terribly unfair.
Sitting back, she touches the slimy seaweed with her pointer finger and sadness suddenly ripples through her chest, making it hard to breathe. This plant provided shelter, food, and protection to generations of sea life only to be ripped from its foundation and deposited onto the sandy shore like a banana peel thrown in an overflowing trash can. Or like an old woman who gave everything for her family only to find herself living alone in a travel trailer moving from town to town.
Waving her hands frantically to scare off the bugs, she lifts the limp plant up by the bulb, runs to the edge of the water, and tosses it as far as she can. The roaring waves mask any plunking sound but she imagines it’s similar to dropping dumplings into a boiling pot of chicken broth. Bloop.
Her children always loved soup night sitting around the large wooden table throwing crusts of bread at each other. It’s been years since they were all together—scattered now like sand in the wind. Maybe she should call them all to meet her by the sea. Would they come? Life can be so busy for those in the thick of it. This she remembers.
Vanora stands and brushes the wet sand off her clothes as best she can. There’s nobody on the beach except a few seagulls and a scraggly-looking crab missing a leg. She watches him scuttle sideways, struggling to cross the sand, and is struck by how similar they both are. Unable to move as they like. Pondering what’s next. Needing help.
Grabbing the large reddish shell with both hands she lifts the terrified crab from the sand and carries it into the icy water. The cold seeps into her pants and it requires all her focus to keep balanced, but she doesn’t stop until she’s certain the crab won’t be dragged back instantly to shore.
“Good luck, little fellow.”
With a flick of her wrists, she lets it go and it immediately disappears beneath the bubbly white foam. Vanora feels a pang of jealousy and wonders if anywhere will feel like home again. It’s been years since she’s felt the comforting feeling of belonging, but it feels more like decades. Lost memories and lost time. When did loneliness become her only constant?
Finding a large piece of driftwood to use as a backrest, Vanora sits in the sand with her legs out in front of her. The blue of her nail polish has chipped and she’s shivering from the cold. The sun continues to inch toward the water, painting the sky with thick, vivid brushstrokes of pink and gold. Nature’s nightly masterpiece always changes and surprises her.
“Every starry galaxy morphs and sings caught within its own orbital rings, but it’s humans who have the power choosing how to spend every hour.”
An eerie deep voice crackles beside Vanora and she turns to find a tall, wrinkled man sitting in the sand beside her staring at the sea. His limbs are long and crooked and he’s dressed in only a pair of tattered brown pants. There are tears falling from his pale green eyes, cutting a path through his weathered, sandy face. Sadness, the great connector, erases all traces of fear from Vanora and she’s left with only peaceful curiosity.
It’s as if he’s simply another creature found along the shore—nothing less and nothing more. There’s a slick wetness about him as if he crawled out of the water moments before and perhaps he did. His feet are covered in sharp, white barnacles and his long, grey hair and beard are peppered with pieces of dark green seaweed. His speech is slow and careful.
“Skulls of restless men do lie beneath the choppy waves and sky, searching for what they already know love transcends the moon’s bright show.”
These words are followed by a blank expression and silence. Vanora feels as if she should respond but the man has now opened a tiny burlap sack he pulled from his pants pocket. He unties a thin brown rope and withdraws several shells with long, pointy fingers. Grasping them loosely between his palms, he begins shaking them.
The colorful sky swirls and tilts until everything is cloudy and grey. All sounds are muted except for the shells within the ancient man’s hands. Vanora sways to their rhythm finding herself falling into a sleep-like trance. Images appear dream-like and cloudy swirling for a moment until they flash into vivid, sharp focus. One after another.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Thirty-five seconds are left on the timer before the roast is ready to be pulled out of the oven. Vanora wipes her hands on her faded flower apron and watches the children rushing around setting the table. The older boys carry the glassware while the little ones help with napkins and silverware. Her husband kisses her on the cheek before washing his hands for dinner. The baby fusses in the high chair.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Turning off the radio reports announcing another deployment of troops, the family gathers in the overgrown field behind the house in the late hours of the night. Using a borrowed brass telescope they take turns looking at the moon, Venus and Mars. They eat banana pudding and vanilla cookies from a thermos. The little ones pick flowers using a flashlight. Vanora wipes a tear from her husband’s cheek with her pointer finger.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.
Walking through the empty house Vanora checks one more time for anything left behind. She doesn’t want to leave her home, but the war isn’t stopping anytime soon and without her husband, she must do what she can to protect her children. Her youngest just learned to walk and he waddles across the clean wooden floors giggling at how much space there is to move. The oldest children fold their arms and scowl. Nothing she can say will fix this for them.
“What you have always given free I have taken from the sea, stolen from the ocean’s dark abyss a broken memory shell to reminisce.”
Minutes pass into hours as the chilly night gives way to foggy dawn. Vanora sits stiffly with her eyes closed, locked in a slideshow of the past. She watches echoes of herself and her children grow up and change through vivid snapshots of her 70 years of life. Meetings and partings. Happiness and grief. Love and loss. Fullness and beauty transform into warming gratitude that radiates like flashing sparks through her tired body.
A hawk swoops across the sky calling loudly. She opens her eyes. The strange ocean man beside her is gone and the world looks bright and hopeful. A broken sand dollar sits beside her and she holds it close to her chest and smiles. Walking back to her small trailer the words flow as they haven’t in years, almost singing themselves within her, weaving with memories unlocked and free.
“What once was taken far from me hidden inside the Tumtum tree, this broken shell gimble gave for might memory now to wave.
With burbling breath and flowing pen I return back unto myself again, for within my beating beamish heart truth whispers of another fresh start.”
Author’s note: I’ve been working all week to get my house ready to host my mother-in-law’s memorial this Sunday and I left myself no time for writing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the words would come at all. I stayed up late last night, far into this morning, and this story is what developed. While it may not have stayed entirely on topic, I’m kind of proud of this one. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I’ll catch up on reading everyone’s blogs next week. I miss all your words!
Short Story Challenge | Week 35
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a conversation between artists. We had to include the words skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, and ponder.
Dark goes the atavistic night Deeply held by mystic sight Words hang stoney and set Fate falls within epoch’s oubliette -Medieval Moon Prophecy
With an arthritic, wrinkled hand covered in thick, golden rings, the ancient Alchemist hastily scrawls with black ink across the water-stained parchment. Wild words of black winds. Stark words of naked truths. Secrets born of a lifetime studying darkness and light.
From its iron perch near the top of the peaked roof, an enormous red-tailed hawk tracks the movement of the feather-quill pen with unblinking amber eyes. Silently it nods in understanding. The end has come at last.
“Boy,” the Alchemist says weakly. “Boy, come here.”
Galdur has been waiting outside the slightly ajar round door for hours, shivering in a light robe of tattered brown, looking at his burned hands in the glow of the blood moon. With shuffling steps, he presses open the door fully then enters and bows deeply. He’s not a boy but feels the title fits him better than other things he’s been called.
“Yes, sir. I’m here.”
Slumped at his desk near the low-burning fire in the center of the room, the Alchemist folds a thick piece of parchment into thirds and doesn’t acknowledge him. The enormous brown and white hawk, however, clicks its beak and opens its wings, flapping silently for a moment. Galdur avoids looking at its four sharp black talons but can’t escape its monstrous shadow cast against the far wall. He shivers.
Colorful smoke drifts around the small circular room and Galdur holds his robe to his mouth to avoid breathing in the sour smells. His eyes water as he makes his way toward the Alchemist by stepping carefully around tall stacks of antiquated books, through little nooks of shadowy space, and around shelves filled with bottles of dark, swirling liquid. Galdur feels the room and the hawk watching him. They are waiting for him to fail. He always manages to do things wrong.
For as long as he can remember, the Alchemist has called for Galdur to fetch him food, clean his wounds, test his potions, run his errands, and take the hits when his frustration makes him moody. He can’t remember life before coming here but sometimes imagines leaving the fear and failure of this life behind in search of something else. Although he isn’t sure he deserves anything else.
Silently he takes his place on a short wooden stool beside the fire and looks at the aging Alchemist’s long, gnarled, grey hair and beard. He can see the dark puffy skin around his faded blue eyes and his crooked sloping back. It appears he’s aged decades since yesterday, but that can’t be. Galdur wonders if he’s looking through a prism or some kind of magical fog. Everything feels heavy and unstable around him. He wonders if he might be getting sick.
Using one of the many stout beeswax candles lit on the crowded desk, the Alchemist melts a square of silver wax onto the fold of parchment and presses a golden moon stamp into it to seal the paper. Clicking its sharp beak, the large hawk swoops down and lands on a wobbly pile of books taking a moment to settle itself securely before presenting its scaly, orange leg. The Alchemist shakes his head slowly with tears in his eyes.
“Not today, old friend. This journey isn’t for you.”
Decades ago, the Alchemist and the hawk met on the sandy banks of the roaring river Thames. Under the light of the full blood moon, the same moon as tonight, tendrils of destiny and time weaved together forging an unbreakable bond. Together, they’ve seen the world reshaped time and time again by the forces of shadow and light, an immeasurable war raging forever behind the faces of man. It’s been a long, exhausting battle. They are both very tired.
The Alchemist strokes the soft feathers on the back of the bird’s neck. This isn’t a moment for nostalgia, reflection, or hesitation. There’s no time for such things. When this night is over, both he and the hawk will be dead and his last act will either save or condemn this world. It’s no longer in his hands and there’s a certain relief in the knowledge he has done all he can. His work, their work, has ended. Only the moon knows what lies ahead.
“Come closer, boy.”
Slipping off the stool, Galdur takes three slow steps forward with dirty, bare feet. There’s a pounding in his head and he realizes the smoke has reached his lungs, making him dizzy.
“Put out your hands.”
Galdur opens both hands palms up and braces himself for the pain which usually accompanies this command. Instead, the Alchemist gently places the silver-sealed parchment into them as if returning a baby bird to its nest. Galdur feels a rush of warmth floods his body followed by a sense of urgency. The Alchemist closes his eyes and makes a deep bassy sound in his throat. The hawk tries to mimic it but it comes out as a haunting high-pitched hoot.
With a shudder, the Alchemist opens his greyish-blue eyes and stares at Galdur. There’s a look he’s never seen in his teary eyes. He recognizes it as finality, as a goodbye. Whatever happens next will be the end of their relationship and the beginning of something new. He tries not to smile as fate seems to be on his side for the first time in his life.
“You know where to go. You’ll find the cottage behind the waterfall. She will be waiting for you. Nothing else matters.”
Galdur knows the place he speaks of. For years he’s been made to study maps and travel halfway there and back, but never has he been allowed to leave the forest. The Alchemist has both prepared him and broken him. He wonders if he has what it takes to fulfill this task. It feels too important to be left to someone who fails as much as he has.
“You can do this.”
Not for the first time, Galdur has the sense that the Alchemist can read his mind—an unpleasant and uneasy thought. Even so, the words of encouragement feel as refreshing as the first spring rain and he savors the cool sweetness. He didn’t know just how thirsty he had become.
Staring down at the flickering shadows across the sealed parchment in his hand, he searches for something to say to the man who found him as a child and both raised and abused him. Conflicting feelings fight for dominance, begging like hungry abandoned pups to be heard and acknowledged. He sways slightly.
Galdur’s lived a life shut off from the rest of the world. A childhood without birthdays, syrupy treats, or any trace of kindness. A life of only service, servitude, and solitude. A life designed for a single purpose—to deliver this parchment into the hands of the Lady of the Lake. He feels overwhelmed as the pieces of his life click into place. Each task led him to this very moment. He begins to cry.
He’s surprised by his own words and how much he means it. He’s grateful for a life with purpose, even if it’s been difficult and lonely. When he looks up he sees the Alchemist and the hawk have both bowed their heads and closed their eyes. He considers trying to rouse them but decides the time for talking has passed. It’s time for action.
Without looking back, he holds the parchment to his chest and walks swiftly through the room and into the cool night air. There are three things waiting for him draped across an oak barrel of mulled wine: a pair of leather boots, a thick wool cloak, and a small sword. He’s certain none of it was there when he went in, but he knows destiny doesn’t require explanation or belief. It requires faith.
The deep brown leather boots and dark green cloak both fit perfectly. The sword, a short silver dagger with tiny gleaming stars etched along the sharp blade, comes with a leather holster and belt. Galdur secures it around his waist and spins in a circle. There’s a sense of all things coming together. A feeling of completion and new beginnings. He laughs.
Reaching inside the cloak he finds several leather pockets. One is the exact shape of the parchment letter complete with a silver button to secure it close to his heart. There’s a pocket with a flask filled with wine, another with a sack of gold, and a final one filled with tiny carved stones each a different phase of the moon.
Sifting through the smooth stones with his left hand he pulls out the tiny full moon and holds it up to the sky. The journey ahead seems etched on its surface, calling him to be swift, to be bold, and to be brave. If he doesn’t deliver the letter by sunrise all will be lost. He turns toward the foggy forest and takes off in a run.
Destiny awaits and only the moon knows what truly lies ahead.
Author’s note: There’s nothing more fun than a good fantasy adventure. I set out to write one centered around the journey of an important letter but ran out of time to complete the story. Instead, you get the beginning of an epic journey that might someday be made into a novel including shadow monsters, the lovely Lady of the Lake, and a tale of true redemption for dear old Galdur. Thanks, as always, for reading my story of the week.
Short Story Challenge | Week 32
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a letter changing everything. We had to include alchemist, waterfall, birthday, cottage, spring, roar, syrup, sift, immeasurable, and bank.
Using my pointer finger, I draw a heart in the fogged glass of the window as the car pulls to a stop. We are beside a wide field of tall, lush grass stretching out toward a mountain covered in thick, cottony clouds. The trees appear as tiny muted and faded spikes far off in the distance. I draw an arrow through the heart and then wipe it all away with the palm of my hand.
My parents are fighting again. A paper roadmap lay across Mom’s lap and Dad is grumbling loudly about the rental car’s useless GPS and “this confounded place.” Lost again. Great. Some trip this has turned out to be.
“Can I get out for a minute?” I say.
I’m already slipping my faded blue Converse over my thick hiking socks and tying the laces. My parents stop talking and Dad twists in his seat and looks at me with purplish, puffy bags under his big brown eyes. He drank too much wine last night and probably didn’t sleep. Perfect.
“What for?” Dad says.
“She needs fresh air and she probably doesn’t want to hear us bickering,” Mom says.
She doesn’t turn to look at me but she’s talking slowly and massaging her temples which means another migraine is blooming. There’s little chance we’ll hike into the hills like they promised or spend any time outside at all. I’ll probably end up watching TV in another hotel room pretending I can’t hear them whisper fighting in the bathroom.
My parents said this trip was to bring the family closer, but it was really a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. They should have let me stay at Marlene’s house where I could be swimming right now and flirting with her older brother’s cute friends. Instead, I’m stuck in this never-ending cycle of almost adventure followed by bickering, headaches, and another lackluster hotel room. This isn’t how I pictured a European vacation.
“Fine, but don’t wander away,” Dad says.
He grabs the map from Mom in a quick snapping motion and she makes a sound very similar to the hissing of a cat. She’s pissed. Grabbing my faded black hoodie from the open backpack on the floor, I throw open the car door. It’s freezing and damp outside but the air is still and clean.
“Pay attention to your surroundings,” Mom calls.
“Yeah, yeah. I know.”
Slamming the door shut, the immediate sound of angry voices swelling, I stride from them with short but fast steps. Shivering, I pull on my hoodie and cover up my untidy mass of dirty red curls with a double tug of the tattered strings. Thank goodness no cute boys are around to see me dressed in ugly tan cargo pants with a fresh breakout shining across my red chin.
Stepping sideways down a steep embankment slick with mud, I walk into a field of tall green grasses. There are a few unremarkable yellow flowers dotting the sea of green and several large patches of oversize clover. It smells like it either recently rained or will soon—earthy, musty, and magical.
There’s a peaceful silence radiating around me, singing fairytales and happily ever afters. Maybe I’ll return here with my true love someday and he’ll pick one of the flowers and tuck it behind my ear and tell me I’m beautiful. The thought makes my heart flutter for a minute as I pick a scraggly flower and press it to my lips.
Nobody will love you. There it is. The thought rambles forward and becomes a chorus of fear singing in shrill voices of my uneven boobs, too-wide middle, and the thickness of my heavily freckled thighs. I’m unloveable. Strange. Weird. Odd. My feelings are too big and my talents too few. Throwing the flower as hard as I can it lands at my feet. I suck at everything.
Usually, this is when I’d text my friends for support, but my parents banned cell phones on the trip so we’d be more connected with each other. I’m more lonely than I have ever been in my life. While my parents are lost in some kind of battle I don’t understand, I’m dizzy and weak with anxiety. I hate not knowing what’s going on back home. I have a sick feeling that my friends will replace me while I’m gone.
Pulling up a handful of the tall wet grass I try to braid three pieces together as I walk but they snap leaving my hands feeling sticky. I toss them to the ground as I feel the tears coming. No. Don’t you dare cry Olivia. If they forget you they aren’t your real friends. You aren’t unloveable. I wipe my hands on my pants and rub my eyes with the sides of my thumbs.
The memory of Marlene whispering to the popular Tracys at the park last week comes thundering in on wings like some kind of military chopper in a war movie where everyone but the main character dies. They stared at me while they talked behind their heavily manicured hands—Passionfruit Pink, Pretty in Peach, and Big Apple Red.
Marlene later said it was a secret and she couldn’t tell me. My best friend is keeping their secrets. Is she still keeping mine? There’s nothing I can do about any of this from across the ocean and without my phone I’m practically invisible. Erased.
The sound of flowing water suddenly explodes around me and I stop a second before plunging into a wide rushing river of murky green water. It’s an angry splashing monster far too loud to be real, foaming white where it tumbles over large algae-covered boulders. It’s wide and scary.
Stumbling back from the rocky edge I slam into the rough trunk of a massive elm tree. The broad spiky canopy of emerald leaves blots out the sky, plunging me into shadowy darkness. None of this was here a moment ago. It’s impossible. Wake up, Olivia. You must be dreaming.
Heaviness sits on my chest as my breathing becomes shallower and shallower. For a moment I think I may tumble into the water but instead, my legs slide out from under me until I’m sitting with my back pressed against the scratchy tree trunk. The ground beneath me rumbles and twists. I feel seasick.
The air is cloudy and thick, but I can still see the water. I watch as items speed by, carried by the surging current; a twisted tree branch trailing a neon orange piece of twine, a yellow plastic frisbee, a torn and ragged-looking water lily, a bookshelf filled with soggy books, and an old bicycle tire spinning in circles.
Powerless, I attempt to stand and find my body numb from the waist down as if stuck in mud or quicksand. Am I sinking? Am I dreaming? Nothing stays in focus for long, blurring in and out around me as if seeing it from under the water. Am I drowning? My thoughts are curious and strangely lacking the kind of fear I should have. In fact, I feel calm and oddly in control.
Across the water, an image comes into sharp focus as if my eyes have become a telephoto lens and I’ve twisted it just right. Standing in faded loose jeans and a pale blue t-shirt is a boy with full pink lips, fluffy black hair, and eyes the color of coppery wet sand. He raises his hand to wave at me and I hear his honeyed voice in my head.
Necromancer, sorcerer, magician; the words float through my head as I’m surrounded by the most irresistible scent of campfires, wool blankets, and dark chocolate mixed with marshmallows and ocean breezes. Breathing it in, I hear him singing to me—a song without words that I can feel deep within the core of my body as warmth and light. I want him to touch me, to hold me, to take me away from everything and make it all better.
Two enormous ravens with slick, shiny wings of midnight black land on my legs with sharp talons and stare at me with glassy obsidian eyes. They click their beaks as a story plays inside the small round unblinking pools of inky darkness. I watch it reflect back to me like a movie on four tiny screens.
A young girl finds her true love beside the water and they dance under a sky of giggling stars while the moon laughs with a wide-open mouth of glittery white. Chestnut deers dart around the pair leaping and prancing. They are joined by red-tailed foxes, scruffy hares with pink veiny ears, and dozens of crows clicking and cawing.
He’s beside me now as the ravens draw me upwards, swishing their wings until my clothes flutter around me transforming into a stunning black dress of whispers and shadows. Sparkling and flowing with pinpricks of light like tiny stars, it hugs my body and makes me feel beautiful and radiant. A princess of the night.
Terror. I should be scared of this mystical boy who controls ravens, who shows me visions, and can speak to me inside my head. There is a part of me screaming, a small tiny part, and I hear it like carbonation in a glass held close to my ear. It pops and fizzes, but I can’t seem to do anything but stare at him. He is the answer to everything wrong with my life. He is the answer to everything wrong in the world. He is everything.
His hand reaches toward me, covered with rings of blood-red rubies. Smiling, I see golden explosions of light in his rich dark eyes—another universe, another place where I can be someone who dances and is loved. Adored. Craved. His equal. Whispers of power, like electricity, spark through the dress and make the hair on my body dance as if alive. I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.
“Take me by the hand,” he says.
A cord, like a golden rope, winds itself around my ring finger and tries to pull me toward him. Touching my hand to his will be the end of my life, but the screaming part inside me has gone silent. I want this. It’s my fate. I saw the vision. Happiness is one second away.
A small familiar sound at my feet causes the rope around my finger to loosen and memories to press through me within the space of a single shiver—one, two, three.
I’m standing in my grandmother’s house with a piece of yarn tucked into my leggings begging her for cheese because I’m a mouse. I’m the mouse that I dream of every night—a fluffy, grey puff ball with soft eyes and twitching whiskers. She tells me I’m silly and I squeak at her.
I’m running on the playground from the boy who keeps pinching my butt until I find the tiniest place to squeeze into—the space between the shed and the fence. The boy runs by and I giggle into my mousey paws. Sneaky.
I’m hiding in my closet with a flashlight and my sketchpad while my parents throw things at each other and yell. I draw my mouse over and over-focusing on the features of his nose and his eyes. He brings me comfort when little else does. He’s my best friend.
The memories stop and I look down to see my mouse. He’s real! Standing on his hind feet he waves his tiny paws in the air squeaking and squeaking. I’m in danger. This isn’t right. The mouse tells me to run and I feel the golden bond around my finger snaking up until it’s holding onto my wrist.
The bewitching boy smiles at me inches from my face. He tucks a soft curl behind his ear with his left hand. There’s something angular about him and he looks older despite the cute dimples on either side of his smiling, tender lips. His pointy jaw twitches.
“Take me by the hand,” he says again.
The smell of him becomes too much and I step back teetering on the rocky edge of the river. He smiles and reaches out his bejeweled hand. I shiver as he speaks, his voice a mix of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard—roaring ocean waves dancing in and out, oak logs crackling in the Christmas fireplace, and my grandfather strumming his guitar and humming.
“Olivia, all you have to do is take my hand and you will be everything you always wanted to be. A beauty everyone will be jealous of. A writer. A painter. A singer. All you desire is simply a touch away. Don’t think. Just take me by the hand.”
I reach my hand toward him but before our fingers touch, I feel the sharp little nails of my grey mouse scurrying up the inside of my leg. The frantic squeaks sound like “no, no, no” and when he bites the golden strand holding me, I lose my balance and fall slowly backward. The magical boy makes a small grunt which turns into a deep growl.
Screaming and flailing my arms, I close my eyes and hold my breath bracing myself to plunge into the icy rushing water of the swirling river. It doesn’t happen. I fall and fall until I land instead on the soft damp ground of the grassy field. I’m dry and wearing my regular clothes. Standing, I brush myself off and immediately realize things still aren’t right.
The yellow flowers are much larger than before, having bloomed into something resembling roses mixed with sunflowers. Swaying in a breeze I don’t feel, I can’t take my eyes off of them. Their strong fruity smell fills my lungs and makes me dizzy and then wildly happy. Dancing on tiptoes, I twirl and twirl to the sound of a hundred golden fiddles playing songs of the forest, of the wind, and of a lifetime of colorful sunsets.
It’s him—his enchanting song flows on white, feathery wings down the steep mountains in all directions toward me. I see it as a rolling, cloudy mist and I open my palms and raise my arms out to welcome it. To welcome him. Why was I resisting the beauty of it all? I could be truly happy. He will save me from a life of struggle.
A sharp sting on my thumb makes me lower my arms and I find my fluffy mouse sitting in my palm blinking at me. He’s bitten my thumb and there’s a little drop of red blood. I watch his mouth opening and closing, his nose and whiskers twitching, but it’s minutes before the tiny squeak penetrates the foggy mist and I hear it. I’m in danger. I need to run. I have to get away.
Tucking the mouse into the large front pocket of my hoodie, I run as fast as I can through the meadow. The mist has become thick and I run blindly while the large flowers seem to smack and slash at me with sharp thorns. I’m crying now, fear finally gripping me tightly, as I run and run for what feels like hours.
“Take me by the hand,” I hear on the wind.
His voice has transformed from sweet and melodic to angry and snarling. Reaching into my pocket I touch the fur of my mouse stroking the softness and whispering to myself that this is all a dream over and over. I don’t understand why any of this is happening and I want it to be over. I don’t like my parents, but I don’t want to be away from them either. I need them.
As if tuning a radio to another frequency the sound of my parent’s voices cuts through the billowing clouds. They sound annoyed and a bit worried. I run toward them as fast as I can.
“Olivia!” Dad calls.
“Where are you?” Mom calls.
“I’m right here!” I cry.
Following the sound of their voices through the thick fog, I feel the boy close by. He swirls around me lashing out with golden cords which rip and tear at my clothes. Pain sharpens my will and I run faster and faster. The road can’t be this far away! They can’t be this far away! My leg muscles burn and I’m gasping for air.
Suddenly my feet hit something hard and I tumble forward landing on the hard, gritty, grey asphalt of the road. Where is the hill I climbed down? My parents jump back when they see me.
“What in the world has gotten into you?” Dad says.
“Are you okay?” Mom says.
“I think so,” I say.
Scrambling to my feet I rush into her arms and she hugs me to her. Dad inches closer until mom pulls him to us. We sway together as both of them kiss my head over and over. We might be okay. It might all work out. Hope surges through me and I let it.
We make our way back to the car with plans to find a place to eat. I slip my hand into my pocket and find my mouse has disappeared, but I know he’s not far away. He’s always with me. As we pull back onto the road, I turn in my seat to look back. There’s a steep wall of mist stopping at the road. I watch as it piles up and up as if hitting an invisible wall. I’m safe. Rolling down my window, the sweet voice of the mystical boy swirls through me and I wonder if I’ll hear its echo for the rest of my life.
Author’s note: This was a prompt made for me and yet I found it incredibly difficult to narrow it down to one myth. I wanted to find something different than my usual tone, but no matter how much I tried the story of a mythical creature luring a depressed one into its lair kept coming back. Resistance is futile, I suppose.
If you are curious, I based the male character on some combination of the Hulder and Leanan sídhe, although it could be argued I fell back into my Goblin King safety net. The ravens are a nod to Odin with the awareness they are nothing like his spies. The part with the mouse is based on an Irish myth about the Fylgja, creatures which eat the afterbirth of a child and serve as a sort of totem animal—coming to them in their dreams and in physical form when they are in danger. I liked this idea a lot and might play with it in another story.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Let me know what you think in the comments below and if you decide to write the next prompt with me let me know so I can link it to you.
Short Story Challenge | Week 27
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write something believed to be a myth that is very real. We had to include necromancer, elm, roadmap, GPS, outside, twine, water lily, plastic, chopper, and powerless.
Ruth stares into the bright pink drink and wonders if the dye used on the lemon slice will make her stomach hurt later. The tightening pain in her lower back hasn’t loosened yet, despite three glasses of champagne and two rum and Diet Cokes. Maybe this “Pink Panther” drink will do the trick.
Taffy waves at her from the black-and-white checkered dance floor. Her long blonde hair hangs in ringlets down the middle of her exposed back. Her floor-length red sequined dress hugs her hips and exposes several inches of her breasts. She doesn’t look 60.
The young man pressed close to her, nuzzling her neck, has slicked-back hair and tight black leather pants. Ruth wonders if he’s paid to dance with the women here. Maybe it’s like a “Dirty Dancing” situation, part of the resort package. Then again, nobody has asked her to dance.
It’s close to midnight and Ruth wants to go to bed, but she knows Taffy will stay until the band packs their shiny instruments back into their cases and the staff escorts them to their 8th-floor suite with apologies and promises for new adventures in the morning. It’s been three days of this and Ruth’s ready to go home. She’d much rather be laying by the pool all day than following Taffy around.
The two of them have been friends since high school, meeting through the shared trauma of marching band uniforms and having both dated the drum major at the same time. He had terrible acne, but could play the hell out of the trumpet and knew how to sweet talk a girl. He was Ruth’s first love.
They dumped him together at the annual Jazz Festival downtown. He’d just finished playing on the main stage with an adult band from Louisiana, a huge honor for a high school junior. After the applause, Ruth and Taffy slowly walked toward the stage. His face dropped when he saw them holding hands. Taffy slapped him and loudly told the entire audience he’d been dating them both.
“Let’s go for a night swim!” Taffy says, slipping into the turquoise booth beside Ruth.
She takes a drink of the strawberry margarita she’s left sitting out for the last hour. It’s melted and separated, but she doesn’t seem to notice. There’s sweat on her face from dancing giving her a shiny, youthful glow with slightly pink cheeks. She reapplies her red lipstick and smiles at herself in her gold compact. Ruth wonders how they’ve remained friends when they are both clearly wired so differently.
“Night swim. Night swim. Night swim.”
Taffy’s pounding her palms on the table with each word and the few people still in the bar look over. Ruth sucks down the remainder of the pink drink with a few loud gulps hoping the alcohol will give her the courage to stand up to her friend and cease the never-ending party which is hanging out with Taffy. It doesn’t.
She allows Taffy to grab her hands and pull her from the farthest corner booth where she’s spent the last several hours silently drinking. As they pass the matching black-suited salsa band, the drums and trumpets swell. Taffy grabs Ruth and twirls her three times in a circle. Her tropical flowered sundress floats out exposing her Spanx-covered thighs for a brief moment, but Ruth doesn’t mind. She allows Taffy to guide her around and around the dance floor, marveling at her friend’s energy, her fast footwork, and how good it feels to be with her.
With a flourish of her dress and a wave to the band, Taffy guides them out of the bar and into the wide brown-tiled lobby—a place of bright neon colors, seashell chandeliers, egg-shaped chairs, and an abundance of driftwood artwork. At the far end is an ornate brass archway leading outside covered in tiny gleaming depictions of sea creatures. Ruth touches a penguin with her hand thinking how out of place it is among the sea turtles and starfish. Maybe it’s supposed to be a pelican but the artist forgot the legs.
Once outside, the music fades into the soft lapping sound of the ocean dancing along the jagged shoreline. Ruth and Taffy walk hand and hand along the wooden walkway swinging their arms like children, their high heels making matching clicking sounds. When they reach the sand they sit down to take off their shoes. Despite being in the tropics, there’s an autumnal breeze and a light mist.
“I’m so glad you are here with me,” Taffy says.
“Me too,” Ruth says.
Taffy squeezes Ruth’s hand and holds it for a few minutes. She’s considering all the things she wants to say to her friend, but it never quite feels like the right moment. They’ve grown so distant in the last 30 years, living lives very different from each other. She’d really hoped this trip would be a chance to be together and talk, but her friend hasn’t stopped moving. In fact, Ruth isn’t sure Taffy has slept the entire trip.
The quiet moment is broken by the low sound of a fog horn coming from the old lighthouse. Its beam sweeps across the dark waters illuminating large black rocks far from the shoreline. Ruth wonders what dangers lurk in the ocean late at night.
“What are we waiting for?” Taffy cries.
Taffy releases Ruth’s hand, strips off her clothes, throws them in a heap and runs naked into the dark ocean waters. Her aging body looks remarkably the same as it always has, beautifully curved and covered in freckles. She swims quickly away from the shore with a practiced steady breaststroke.
Ruth scans the beach for late-night scuba divers or couples looking for a place to be alone. She’s also thinking about sharks and jellyfish. 30 chest compressions and then two breaths. Clear the airway. 100-120 per minute.
“Come on, Ruth!” Taffy calls from the water. “It feels wonderful!”
“I’m not sure…”
“When will you ever swim in the ocean at night again?”
“No! Don’t think. Come on! Night swim! Night swim! Night swim!”
Ruth carefully takes off her clothes, folds them, and sets them in a pile far from the water’s edge. Naked, she’s aware of the folds and sagging skin of her aging body—a softness and heaviness all her own. She touches the stretch marks on her stomach and smiles. Taffy whistles at her.
“Hey, hot stuff,” she calls.
Ruth spins in a circle and laughs. There was a time, not long ago, she’d have let hoards of self-loathing thoughts take over a moment like this. It would have turned into a full-blown invasion of shame and anger mixed with the kind of jealous-comparing it took nearly 50 years to finally be rid of. She’s proud of how far she’s come and wonders if Taffy’s confidence is true or if she’s trying to mask her own insecurities. If they were different friends, maybe she could ask her.
“Are you waiting for a merman or something?” Taffy calls from the water. “Come in already!”
Ruth laughs and walks into the water. It’s brisk and cool, but not enough to make her shiver. She dives under the low waves and swims out to where her friend treads water with graceful fluid movements. Her fluffy blonde hair looks dark when wet and is stuck flat to her head. The heavy makeup she wears has faded making her look even fresher and younger.
“Hi,” Ruth says.
“About time,” Taffy says. “Want to race?”
“No. I do not.”
“Are you afraid you will lose?”
“No. I will lose. I don’t care.”
“Let’s see who can dive down the furthest?”
“No. Let’s just float.”
Taffy dives under anyway as Ruth allows her body to float on the mostly still saltwater. The white half-moon peeks out from behind the clouds along with a milky sky sprinkled with tiny, bright stars. With her ears under the water, Ruth concentrates on her own breath. In and out. In and out.
Water sprays Ruth’s face and she returns to an upright position to find Taffy swimming in a circle with hard, splashy kicks. She scans the water for any signs of danger, and finding none, feels annoyed at her friend’s behavior. There’s no reason for her to use such aggressive movements in the water.
“What’s that about?” Ruth says. “You okay?”
Taffy stops and treads water a few feet from Ruth. For a few minutes, the friends say nothing. Taffy turns away from her and Ruth has the horrible feeling her friend might be crying. Ruth’s always done the crying for the both of them and she doesn’t know what to do. She swims a little closer.
“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake. You dream about going up there but that is a big mistake.”
Taffy’s singing “Under the Sea” in her very best Sebastion voice. She’s trying to make Ruth laugh, and it almost works until movement in the dark water makes her stop. There’s something swimming in a circle between them creating a small whirl of movement right below the surface. Both of them freeze, terrified.
“Did you see that?” Ruth says.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
A silent eruption of bubbles floats to the surface around them on all sides. Ruth covers her mouth to stifle a scream and Taffy swims beside her. Leaning close together they watch as the bubbles pop and leave behind tiny balls of light pulsing, circling them. The churning water below them stops.
“What’s happening?” Ruth says.
“I don’t know.”
Taffy reaches out her hand and grabs one of the slightly rainbow-colored bubbles turned solid. It’s heavy, squishy, and warm. The muscles in her body relax, something like a bell ringing fills the air and she can taste the oatmeal cookies her grandmother made her as a child. She looks into the eyes of her friend and truthful words pour forth with fluid ease.
“I’m so lonely,” she says. “I don’t let anyone in and I’m afraid if I stop moving I’ll die.”
It’s as if the words have been waiting behind a wall and the bubbles pressed them through. Taffy stares at the thing in her hand feeling uncertain about what to do next. Ruth touches her friend on the arm and smiles at her. She’s got tears in her eyes.
“Thank you for telling me that,” she says. “You can tell me anything.”
Taffy grabs Ruth’s right hand out of the water and drops the ball into her palm. It dances through her fingers and Ruth makes a fist to keep from losing it. She sighs deeply, tastes fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and hears the sound of doves cooing. Her body feels loose and the words come, like magic, from deep inside.
“I’m lonely too,” she says. “I haven’t told you the truth about so many things. I just couldn’t.”
The balls around them glow brighter and press into them illuminating their faces with a soft white light. The women gather them into their arms, letting the sensations of memory wash over them, freeing up truth and vulnerability. They spin connections sharing stories back and forth as they float in the dark ocean water. One after another the balls sink below the surface.
Night turns to day and the sun makes its climb out of the water and into the morning sky. With the rays of pink and golden light comes the awareness of time and exhaustion. The friends embrace each other.
“I think I’m ready for bed now,” Taffy says.
“You think?” Ruth says.
Side by side the old friends swim back to shore.
Author’s note: A lot of my stories take place in and around water. I’ve been lucky enough to have some powerful moments with friends at the ocean—connections forged through the beauty of vulnerability. This story is dedicated to those in my life who have trusted me with their truths. I see you and love you for being fully yourself with me.
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about adult friends on vacation in the tropics. We had to include scuba diver, champagne, invasion, archway, hoard, strawberry, penguin, autumnal, cease and mist.
The Shadow can hear the wet sound of a tongue licking a dry lip or the tiny flick of an index finger scrapping the cuticle of a thumb. With no eyes and no nose, it relies on its heightened hearing to track its prey. It flows like liquid smoke back and forth in front of a small rocky waterfall, its arms and legs are sweeping willow branches made of darkness.
Faven’s knees and thighs ache from sitting cross-legged on the cold, wet stone floor. It’s been hours since she’d run into this cramped spot, hiding within the sound of the rushing water. She can see the Shadow moving through the blurry wall, its distorted blackness plunging her from light to dark as it paces. It knows she’s nearby.
Soaked from the icy mist, Faven knows she can’t stay here much longer. She presses her translucent wings, tied close to her body with a piece of soft white rope, hard into the jagged rocks behind her to stop them from quivering and giving her away. She shouldn’t have come here.
A loud ripping blast, the sound of wood being shattered, roars through the night. The Shadow’s inky black shape stops moving and its elongated body stands silhouetted by hundreds of dancing red sparks. The fragrant sugary smell of burning petals floats into the cave, the smell of the pink lyndol tree, and Faven covers her mouth to prevent herself from coughing.
The Shadow presses its hands onto the place hips might be, a stance Faven would find comical if she wasn’t so terrified. Two more explosions echo around her, followed by a blast of hot wind which roars through the cave and singes her eyebrows. She needs to cough but swallows it back. Her throat burns.
The Shadow slinks toward the fire, roaring in all directions. Faven watches it swallow up the smoke as it goes, sucking it up with big gulping sounds, the hungry eye of a tornado. She crawls on her hands and knees keeping her eyes on its black shape until she can push her hot face into the cold water. Pulling back, she catches the icy liquid in her cupped hands and takes several long gulps.
Faven removes a three-inch green knife the shape of an elongated leaf from her leather belt and swipes up to cut the rope. Her wings spring out and flap back and forth swirling the pink vapor until it forms a whirlpool around her. She presses through the smoke and the water, out the entrance of the cave, and straight up into the still night sky. Stars shine above and around her, wishes made into balls of brilliance to twinkle for all time as beacons of hope.
Savoring the feeling of the wind pressing into the curves along the thin membranes of her wings, Faven circles above the burning trees. Her long brown braid has come loose and thick strands of hair whip at her cheeks and eyes. She searches the forest for her friends.
Apollo, dressed in his favorite green argyle suit, presses through the forest blasting trees with a long, twisting staff made of dark redwood. It looks too big for his small hands and Faven wonders where it came from. He’s pale and chanting something under his breath. His short black hair, wet with sweat, sticks to his head.
Luz runs beside him holding a small hand mirror of tarnished gold, an object Faven has never seen before. Streaks of yellow light flow from its shimmery surface to create a crisscrossing web around the two of them. She’s wearing a pinafore of pale pink and her curly blonde hair has been pulled up into two puffs at the top of her head.
Both of their wings are tied back with a white rope to conserve energy. They are moving further into the woods, away from the Fae towns to the West and East. Faven can’t see the Shadow but knows it’s not far behind.
“Up here!” She calls them, but they don’t hear her.
With a burst of energy, she flies ahead, landing in a field of weeds and wildflowers just a moment before her friends appear through the tree line. They smile as she tucks in between them, running in a line together across the field and down a small hill toward the foul-smelling waters of the brine lake.
“I told you to go home,” Faven says.
“You’re welcome,” Apollo says.
“Hi!” Luz says.
“Where did you get those?” Faven says.
She points at the items her friends clutch in their hands, the gnarled staff, and the antique mirror. Although all three of them have portfolios of skills far greater than most 10-year-olds, nobody would trust them with such powerful magical artifacts. They are the orphans of the temple, the forgotten children of the Fae, and nobody gives them such expensive gifts. Apollo laughs.
“Stole them,” he says.
“Borrowed them,” Luz says. “From the Fae High School.”
“Nobody saw us,” Apollo says. “We were stealthy little rats.”
“I’m no rat,” Luz says. “More like a colorful chameleon or a snowy owl.”
A sudden sharp crunching sound causes them to spin around. The Shadow, free from the smoke and fire, moves toward them with impossibly long strides. Streaking, sneaking, sliding across the ground, closing the gap between them within moments with slick untiring movement. The clicking sound of its gnashing teeth comes from the center of its black body, making all three of them shiver.
“Go!” Faven says. “It only wants me.”
“There’s no time to argue this again,” Apollo says. “We aren’t leaving you.”
“We fight together,” Luz says.
Faven appreciates their loyalty but wishes they’d simply go home. She’s the one who woke up the creature and she’s the one it wants. It was her stupid idea to draw the pentagram in the forbidden woods and call forth the Shadow. They were simply witnesses to her incredible foolishness.
She grew up hearing the bards sing of her mother—a raven-haired beauty who fought with twin golden blades while her baby suckled at her breasts. She defeated packs of horned drooling beasts from the center of the Earth with a fierceness said to have been forged by her years of solitude within the forbidden forest. She died when Faven was two-years-old, poisoned by a former lover.
Faven wants a chance to do something brave, to be something more than the orphaned trouble-maker the Elders make scrub the stone temples with wire brushes to keep her small hands busy. Everyone expects more of her, yet no matter how hard she tries, she’s the one who ruins everything.
She tried to create a fantastic dessert made of strubel berries harvested under the full moon for the summer feast but ended up setting fire to the kitchen when her cooking spell backfired. She collected an assortment of exotic and strange-looking flowers for her crown at the spring dance, but a seed pod exploded a few minutes after the music began and the smell made everyone sick. Last week she’d been showing off her flying skills in the garden and thought it would be impressive to fly through a large open window into the great hall, spin around, and come back out. She accidentally knocked over a magical corked vase. It broke and filled the hall with rainbow-colored rain. They still haven’t been able to stop it.
Faven didn’t think the stories of the Shadow were real. She’d heard them for years but believed they were told by the Elders as another way to control her and keep her grounded. Her mother lived in the forbidden forest alone for over a decade, so the story goes, and she thought maybe the Shadow would know her. Really, if she’s being honest with herself, she thought the Shadow might be her. It’s why she took the risk and performed the summoning spell, but now she’s ruined everything. Her friends might die because of her. The thought instantly fills her with dread.
“What do we do?” Luz says.
Without slowing, Faven removes her knife and carefully slashes the ropes holding back their wings. She grabs their hands and as they reach the edge of the lake and all three of them rise into the night sky as one. Apollo blasts the ground below them and Luz holds the mirror out to cast the net of protective light.
The Shadow, confused, circles below them making its horrible clicking sound. It won’t hesitate for long and it can fly. Faven has seen it spiral around the forest, swirling like an autumn leaf, sniffing for her. It won’t give up and it’s faster and stronger than all of them.
Apollo and Luz are red-faced and sweaty. Faven can feel them trembling and she tightens her grip on their free hands. They are getting tired, the magical weapons are draining them of all their energy. They are running out of time.
“Where do we go?” Luz says.
“We can’t go home or to the villages,” Faven says. “It will follow me wherever I go and put everyone in danger.”
“I know a place,” Apollo says. “But I don’t know if I can make it.”
“Show me,” she says.
On Faven’s 9th birthday, after blowing out the candle the Elders put in her morning bowl of oatmeal, she reached out and touched Luz’s hand. An image of a package wrapped in pink cotton flashed into her mind. It was sitting under the sink in the kitchen beside the big blue bottle of cleaner. She jumped from her chair and ran into the kitchen and pulled it out.
“Hey,” Luz said. “That was supposed to be a surprise for tonight!”
“But you wanted me to have it now,” Faven said.
“I did!” Luz said.
A feeling, like a blush, rushed through her body—she could read minds! After experimenting with her friends, she discovered it wasn’t mind-control or a way to captivate the mind of others, but rather a one-way guidance system allowing her to retrieve information given freely by someone she trusts. So far, she’s mostly used it to gossip and pass math tests. However, right now, she hopes it will allow her to lead her friends to safety.
Apollo nods and presses an image through their connected hands—an abandoned Eagle nest perched high in one of the ancient rendel trees. It’s covered with fertile tangry mushrooms, strong and pungent. If they can make it there, the scents will protect them for the night.
“I’ll get us there,” Faven says.
Flapping her wings as hard as she can, Faven pulls her friends away from the lake and back into the dense trees of the forbidden forest. There’s a sweeping sound behind her and she’s certain the Shadow has taken flight. She dips and dives, pulling her friends with her, using all of her strength and skill to swerve up, down, and around.
The nest sits exactly where Apollo showed her and she swoops down into it landing on a smelly pile of discarded eggshells, layers of white bird poop, and hundreds of the fat dark brown tangry mushrooms. The fetid stench makes all three of them gag as they lay on their sides catching their breath. The Shadow swoops past them and disappears into the forest.
“You saved us,” Luz says after a few minutes of silence.
“For now,” Faven says. “He won’t give up. Go home! Please. I can’t be responsible for your deaths. I won’t be able to live with myself.”
“This again?” Apollo says. “We aren’t discussing it. There’s no home without you and we stick together. There’s no other way. We are one.”
“We won’t leave you,” Luz agrees. “You can’t get rid of us.”
Faven nods but doesn’t agree. Her friends curl up beside her, three tiny children folding into one another as they do every night in their tiny bed at the top of the temple. Fatigue overpowers the smell and the fear, allowing the warmth of their bodies to melt into the oblivion of dreamless sleep. The rendel tree, the oldest of the trees in the woods, rocks them gently as the night wind sweeps across the fairylands.
Dreams swirl in and out of focus for Faven, gentle sweet images of honey, flowers, and tiny butterflies dancing between her fingertips. Her mother’s face appears above her, bronze-skinned with wide eyes the color of the deepest part of the sea. She hovers with thin milky white wings, flapping them slowly, creating a sweet-smelling breeze Faven feels like kisses upon her cheek. She wants to cry out to her mother, to speak to her, but she’s unable to do anything but look at her. Her deep black hair flows around her face, waves of dark strands flowing nearly vertical from her now unsmiling face. Inky blackness swirls into her hair, mixing with it.
With a flash of panic, Faven opens her eyes and finds it’s still night. She’s not too late. Peeling herself from her friends, she moves to the edge of the nest, hangs her legs over, and tries to remember the story of the Shadow.
Birthed at the dawn of time, it is made out of the hallowed madness left in the wake of its mother—death. A cousin of torment, it was captured by the ancient forest and allowed to dwell below the roots of rotten trees. It can be woken, brought to the surface, by those knowing the ancient ritual and calling its name. Once called forth, however, it won’t return to the soil until it kills the soul of its summoner.
Faven must die. There’s no loophole and until she dies her friends are in terrible danger. She stretches her wings out behind her, flapping them three times to allow blood to flow into the soft folds before falling out of the nest head first. Swooping over the trees, she calls the Shadow forth using its sacred name. It appears within moments and she swoops to the forest floor to greet it.
“No!” Apollo screams.
She sees Apollo spiraling down behind her and watches as the Shadow twists and changes directions in mid-air. Within seconds, hardly a breath, it reaches Apollo and dives through his small body. The color instantly drains from his face and Favin screams. She takes flight and catches his falling figure, the impact causing them both to crash land into a pile of soft brown bark.
Luz lands without a sound on a low tree branch near the sobbing Favin. She hangs upside down by her knees, a silent bat in a cave. Teary-eyed Favin runs her hand through Apollo’s black hair and kisses his soft cheeks.
“It’s all a game,” she says. “Just a game.”
The Shadow lands beside her and when she turns to face it the long, low sound of a bell rings through the air. It lasts several moments, and as it vibrates through the forest, the trees disappear leaf by leaf. Luz jumps down from the green metal bar and lands beside her.
“The bell rang,” she says.
Apollo stands and laughs. He grabs Favin by the hand and pulls her from the bark. She blinks, tears still in her eyes.
“I didn’t really die,” he says. “Because I’m not done playing the game. It’s not fair.”
“We can figure it out next recess,” Luz says. “Maybe we find a rejuvenation spell or something.”
Favin stops and looks at the two kids in front of her. Apollo’s wearing faded blue pants and a green shirt with some kind of creature on the front with big teeth and tiny arms. Luz wears a dress of bright yellow with rainbows covering her legs. Both are wearing shoes with metal circles and crisscrossing white strings.
“Are you okay?” Luz says.
“I don’t know,” Favin says.
“I’m not dead,” Apollo says again. “Okay, guys? It’s not fair.”
“Okay,” Luz says. “We heard you the first time! We wouldn’t kill you off, right Favin?”
“Right,” she says.
The three of them hook arms and walk across the hard, cracked grey earth toward short buildings painted blue and white. Kids stand in lines talking, pushing, and laughing. Favin doesn’t mind this new game at all.
After School | A Triolet
she’s waiting for me when the bell rings faded yellow sweater smelling of home unknown to me except in dreams, no wings she’s waiting for me when the bell rings my name upon her lips she does sing with bluest eyes framed by glasses of chrome she’s waiting for me when the bell rings faded yellow sweater smelling of home
Mother’s Love | A Nonet
my mother knows every inch of me her child from any time or place we fold into each other her arms a warm blanket of protection from the bad dreams of shadowy death my mother heals every inch of me
Author’s note: If you’ve been around this blog for some time you’ve probably realized my love of fairies and fantasy. This week, my story was inspired by the elaborate games I watched my daughter play with her friends at school. They had one storyline they played for over a year, adding more and more backstory and adventure. I thought, what if the game was real and the main character wished it to not be and was instead transported to a playground. It’s a bit of a twist on the “it was all a dream” plot, and one I hope you enjoyed. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 18
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where a child’s dream literally becomes true. We had to include the high school, captivate, portfolio, argyle, witness, fertile, eyebrow, pentagram, thirsty, and guidance.
Jasper’s yelling at me again. His puffy face is so close to mine that I can smell the tobacco tucked into his cheek and see how the sweat dripping off his bald head has formed snaking rivers in his makeup. He’s accusing me of being sloppy, but I never am.
“Girl, I’ve about had it with you,” he says. “Your dismount was wobbly and your feet looked like flat clubs. How many times have I told you to point your toes?”
There’s no way I can answer the question without making him angrier. I wish I could say, “at least I can see my toes.” He leans back on his heels, his thick right-hand swings forward and for a moment I think he might slap me. It wouldn’t be the first time and I wonder if I could catch his wrist with my hand. I’m a lot stronger than I used to be. He spits a gob of black spit at my bare feet and I leap back. He laughs.
“Get out of my sight,” he says.
He’s off to get sloppily drunk on fat, yellow bottles of chartreuse he keeps in a round steamer trunk inside his tent. It takes two of the strong men to carry it from the train. He’ll have some of the young acrobats in his bed tonight performing tricks for him and on him. Does he applaud after? At least I’m too old for him to want me anymore. He likes them young, with smooth skin.
Turning in the opposite direction of his tent, I weave my way through the maze of our makeshift portable city toward the far end where the animals are kept. My partner Dusty, a grey-speckled gelding I’ve been trick-riding for the last few months, will be waiting for me to put on his blanket and give him oats sprinkled with bran.
One of the many barefooted kids hanging around the tents walked Dusty back to his stall after our act so I could try and get some food. The cook locks everything up an hour after the show and I’ve grown tired of rummaging through the garbage bins because I don’t make it in time. Tonight I was lucky and got a bowl of lukewarm stew with several pieces of meat.
The energy after the show can vary, but tonight it’s mellow. We have three more shows tomorrow and everyone knows they must conserve their energy. It never gets fully quiet in the camp, but there are small pockets of it. The shadow thing lives in those silent places, and I rush from sound to sound to avoid being alone with it. I don’t have many memories left for it to steal. I wonder if I used to know its name.
Dusty snorts as I approach, pawing the sandy, soft ground in his makeshift stall. The ocean roars in the distance, the air cool and sweet. I lean against the wooden fence and press my face to his soft muzzle, savoring his earthy breath on my face.
RJ runs toward me with two buckets in his hands, sloshing water everywhere. The muscles on his tanned back and chest are shiny and covered in glitter. He drops the buckets at my feet and I stare at the heart-shaped mole on his left cheek, a lucky fairy kiss. Perhaps that’s how he can walk the tightrope with such skill.
“Did ya hear?” he says. “Sasha ran off! Nobody can find her nowhere. Jasper’s gonna kill somebody.”
I scan the places between the tents as if the skeletally thin frame of the tan and black cheetah might be lurking in the spaces between the flapping colorful fabric walls. She’s one of the older animals in the show and it seems unlikely she’d run off. RJ smiles at me, leaning close enough I can smell he’s eaten something sweet. He doesn’t look the least bit scared.
“When did it happen?” I ask.
“No idea, but I know I ain’t sleeping in my tent tonight.”
“She won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t take no chances with this body. I’m gonna string a tarp up in the trees and you can slip in beside me if ya want.”
He winks, picks up his buckets, and runs off. I’m pretty sure cheetahs can climb trees. I press my toes into the wet spot the buckets left behind, feeling the cooling effect it has on my body. The men are always wanting me to “slip beside them,” even with my scars.
The sound of angry voices fills the night, blowing and hopping from shadows to light, from tent to tent. I can make out snippets of words forming into insults, accusations, and threats. Jasper’s angry growl sounds nearby and I jump. RJ’s right, someone will die if Sasha isn’t found and it might be me.
Jasper used to adore me, back when people flocked to see the Red-Haired Beauty ride Enormous Horace around the center ring. I had five huge trunks of costumes—silver and gold glittery jumpsuits, elaborate feathery headpieces, and exotic silk scarves. The cook would bring me trays of food and I slept on piles of soft cushions in the main tent beside Horace, my best friend. Jasper wishes I’d died in the fire with him, and sometimes I do too.
The dark shadowy thing lurks behind a barrel. Its spidery legs stretch across the ground toward me. What would happen if it swallowed all my memories? Would I die? The high-pitch trumpeting sound echoes inside my chest, as it has since the day Horace saved me but not himself. I touch the patches of thick pink skin on my arms and legs, wrinkled skin like him. The pain of loss shudders through me.
The voices are closer now. Climbing through the wooden fence, I swing my body onto the back of Dusty in one practice motion. His thick back twitches, his ears flatten and his tail swishes back and forth. Beams of light come toward us in the darkness, and the thing by the barrels slinks away. I bend down and flip open the gate.
“Run,” I whisper into Dusty’s ears.
He doesn’t hesitate, springing forth like the starved race dogs when they are finally released from their smelly-cramped boxes and made to run the track for food. Jasper knows the amount of time it takes to make an animal desperate enough to run as fast as it can, but not too far gone they are lethargic or will fight one another. He plays with people the same way.
We weave in and out of the tents and past the pens holding the other animals. I consider flipping all the latches as I pass, but not all the animals want to be free. Jasper screams my name, and I consider calling back “I’m going to look for Sasha,” but it’s not true. At least I don’t think it is. I haven’t decided yet.
The sound of the ocean, faint in the campsite, becomes louder the further we ride. Resting my head on Dusty’s neck, I let him run where he wants. The rhythm of his hooves on the ground relaxes us both and allows my thoughts to wander back and forth in time. Memories mix with the night sky, bright spots of light in a sea of darkness, cliffhangers of thought, unfinished and grey. I can count on my fingers the number of complete memories I have left.
The moon, bright and round, interrupts my thoughts as if whispering “pay attention.” We are at the shoreline now, the dark waves moving in and out with foamy breath I can see and smell. Sliding off Dusty, I watch him wander toward a patch of wild grass, tough seedlings survived by wind and water. He tears at them with his large white teeth.
A tall, slender lighthouse stands perched on the edge of a rocky cliff far off to my right. A silhouetted figure against the black casting its sweeping gold beam into the night to warn ships of the jagged shoreline. I’d like to swim into the light and see if the creatures of the sea swarm up toward it, tricked into thinking daylight has become a fleeting line across the top of the water. They probably know better than I do.
Walking along the shore, I dance in and out of the waves, my old pink leotard shedding its sequins in a trail behind me. A large porous black rock covered with sea creatures lies exposed by the retreating tide with a deep ring of water around it. Leaning in, I see tiny darting crabs, a plump purple starfish, and rows of soft green sea anemones.
A constellation of stars reflected in the water reminds me of the jewels Horace wore around his neck. I touch them and the water ripples out from my fingertips. I miss him. A torrent of hot tears streaks down my cheeks and drips into the water. I watch them as they plunk loudly and form tiny balls of light pulsing and moving in circles. They are alive, my tears, little balls of rainbow-colored light.
Scooping them into my hands, I find they are heavy and wiggly. Startled, I let them plop back into the still water and watch as they swim around and around. The tiny fish dart from hiding places in the rock to nibble at my tears. Are they saltier than the ocean?
Picking one up, I put it into my mouth. It tastes sweet, like puffed spun candy on a stick. It slides into my stomach and a fresh memory floats up from some hidden part inside me. Bright-green eyes and golden hair singing a lullaby of light—I was loved once. Sinking down into the sand, savoring the sound of her voice, the word mother glows golden within me.
Greedy, I begin shoving the tears into my mouth, eating and eating, letting the images come in blasts and bursts. Forgotten faces, sounds, and tastes dance around me—treasures of time returned and restored in full color and sound. The sensation makes me tired, and I fall backward into the sand pushed into a deep sleep.
As if through a thick fog, I’m aware of my body being dragged out of the cool water and into the warm sand. Blinking and blinking, I can make out the shape of Dusty using his teeth to pull me across the beach by my now-torn leotard.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Dusty lets go, whinnies, and paws the ground beside me. I sit up. Awareness prickles down my arms and legs, bringing everything around me into bright focus. The tide has risen high enough to almost fully cover the rock I was laying beside—its black peak sits like a tiny pyramid surrounded by roaring waves. The sun has begun rising, transforming everything from the white light of the moon to the golden pink of the sun.
Dusty snorts close to my ear and I look up to see people coming in a line down the beach carrying dying torches. They are still too far away to make them out, but I know it’s my circus family looking for Sasha and possibly me. For a brief moment I consider calling to them, but I remember the truth the memories revealed. They aren’t my family.
Running through the sand, I leap onto Dusty’s back and kick his sides with both feet. He gallops along the water’s edge before turning toward the shore. We scramble up two sand dunes until we arrive at a wide dirt road heading off in both directions. He stops and we see the long-lanky figure of Sasha walk slowly across the road. She looks at me, blinks twice, and then disappears into the bushes.
Dusty turns and walks down the road to the right and I run my hands along his neck. My real name is Gillian and I had a family before the darkness came and took their faces from me. They are still out there and I’m going to find them.
I’m dipping my toes into the poetry world and felt inspired to write these poems looking deeper at the magic hinted at in the story.
Saliva pools inside puffed pink cheeks as the squishy bubble bursts between molars, exploding juices down my scratchy throat. Burning it fizzles inside; soda pop madness, sweet as jars of candy swiped from dark corner shops while peers sit behind rows of school desks. Her face, the one swallowed by the slinky shadow creature while I walked unknowing into the wrong silent place, comes now with painful throbbing to sing words I’d heard long ago but forgotten, and to brush the stray hairs off my sticky cheek with soft fingertips. The thoughts of love once mine, unasked for but given anyway, are pinpricks of pain, nerves awakening after pinched off so long, messages to tell my body to really feel. I stuff more into my mouth, craving sensations of the forgotten, much too much, but oh how my true name echoes and changes everything.
Plucked from our icy home deep within the salty brine of life’s starting place, we slumber in grains of sand tinier than eyes can perceive. Minute flecks of light, rays of sun mixed with moonlight, we live far below scuttling claws and slippery flippers. You called us forth in an instant, brought by proximity to the shadow of the shadows mark upon your soft imperfect body. We saw you weeping into our waters and felt compelled to stir and rise. We exist, persist, to seek balance between all things. Shifting, we move matter within moments with forces older than time, faster than light and sound. You can’t see until we let you the realness of your truth. The faces and moments feasted upon and stolen from you within the sacred silence it lurks behind. Teasing, we form into physical shapes, tempting you to taste of your life, plopped into waiting warm mouths, sliding into the depths of bone and muscle, wiggling and writhing—alive. We unleash captured memories to dance on the surface of your consciousness, tangos of truth you knew but which it hid within the folds of time.
Author’s note: While at the ocean last week I messaged Anna I needed to go have a great big cry beside the water. She said something about my tears mixing with the saltwater and the image stuck. I imagined my tears becoming little fish in the water nibbling at my toes, and wondered if they could be some kind of mythical creature. The idea felt magical and I played around with it in my head for a few days.
The more I sat with the story, the main character no longer was me, but rather a girl running away from the circus. This thought bloomed, fed by a story I heard on NPR about Horace, an elephant at the Kyiv Zoo. I took nothing from the podcast story except his name and the sensitive nature of elephants, but I’d highly recommend you read about the bravery of those zoo workers to stay in a war zone to care for the animals.
I find myself wanting to know about Gilly and the forces warring around her. I may return to her and her world at another time. Thanks for reading, and as always, I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.
Short Story Challenge | Week 17
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the main character goes on a trip alone to gain perspective. We had to include the lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, and seedling.
I can’t imagine sharing this moment with anyone else, so I take the kids out of school early to join me.
The theater lights go out and the first notes swell around us.
“It’s only forever.
Not long at all.
Lost and lonely.”
There are tears in my eyes as the digital owl swoops across the screen. My boy is happily shoving popcorn into his mouth and smiling. My girl grabs my hand and we share a mutual giggle of excitement.
It is a perfect moment.
The film unfolds in front of us, beautifully bright and with amazing sound, and I can’t stop smiling. It feels like sitting Christmas morning next to the twinkling tree surrounded by wrapping paper, warm coffee in my hand and the smell of freshly baking cinnamon rolls in the oven.
Yes, it feels that perfect.
To say I love the movie “Labyrinth” feels like saying I love my hands. It is a part of me in a way I find hard to explain or even separate from myself.
The story of Sarah, Jareth, Ludo and Hoggle has become as real to me as anything else. It feels more like memory than film. Like I can remember the time I fought my way to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that was stolen.
I can remember it happening to me as clearly as I can remember the time I crashed my tricycle riding it down the driveway with my best friend. I can feel the black eye and the scrapped elbow, and the hands grabbing me as I plunged into the darkness of the oubliette.
I have similar connections to “Goonies,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the original of course), “Princess Bride” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol”.
All of these stories have attached themselves to me in some way and helped shape how I look at the world, myself and my place in it. I find, much like my connection to music, I use these particular films as markers in my life and ways to reconnect with parts of myself whenever I am feeling lost.
“Labyrinth” is the one I turn to the most. Thanks to the talented and beautiful David Bowie (whose death I am not ready to talk about), it works on a visual and musical level to bring me back when nothing else will.
When I was in the dense darkness of depression, there was an intensity about me which I now find hard to fully recall. There was this sense of impending death and destruction which I wore close to me and it clouded every interaction I had.
It was in this place, I really leaned on my childish love of the Goblin King to save me.
I’m parked in front of my children’s school sobbing in the backseat of my minivan. Again. I’m crying so hard I can barely breath.
I want to either run away or die. I feel everything I have become is wrong and there is no way out of the darkness.
The Goblin King is sitting in his castle, much older now. There are wrinkles around his eyes, but his gaze is still fierce and intense. He is alone, the goblins no longer under his control because of the choice Sarah/I made. He is wearing layers of white and grey clothes, the silver and gold amulet sitting on his slightly exposed chest, the afternoon light through the castle windows making it appear he is glowing.
He is waiting for me to decide to call upon him again, so he can offer me his gift.
“I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”
In his left hand, he twirls three crystals slowly, a soft clinking sound filling the empty throne room and echoing off the vast stonewalls. In his right hand, he gazes into the crystal and watches me sob and clutch at my stomach.
He longs to wipe the tears from my face and save me.
“Say the words,” he whispers.
He sits on the edge of his seat now.
“Give everything up love. Surrender everything about yourself and I will take complete control. You won’t have to worry anymore.”
I sit up and consider giving myself to him. The words are on my tongue and I can feel his anticipation rising with mine.
Then the sounds of the playground break through and I’m dragged back.
I want to be here struggling in the real world with my kids, my family, my friends and my problems. I can’t leave them. I can’t give myself to him.
I dry my own tears from my face and stare straight ahead.
I say the words loudly and clear.
“You have no power of me.”
By the time the kids get out of school, I’ve crawled out of the complete darkness and am partially back to myself. I’ve refuted the Goblin King’s offer again to take all my burdens from me and I carry them once again.
I can’t tell you how many times this story has played out in my head as I’ve cried.
Whenever I’m in the place of utter despair, when I feel abandoned by God and love and everything good and decent in the world, I go there.
I picture him, my Goblin King, sitting there loving me, watching me and waiting for me.
It makes the darkness somehow more bearable and makes me feel special/separate/unique.
I’ve often judged myself harshly for these fantasies and told myself I need to grow up. Life doesn’t contain the magic you pretend it does.
But it does.
I’ve seen it.
My 11-year-old son running from across the playground at school to give me a hug and tell me he loves me, in front of his friends.
My daughter glowing with confidence and joy as she plays her keyboard in the early morning light, her hair looking like spun gold.
The smell of the pine trees after it rains as I walk inside the barn to a job with my best friend I can hardly believe is real.
Watching myself grow and become the person I’ve always wanted to be in ways I could not have predicted or imagined.
Is it really such a stretch to believe the Goblin King is watching me from his castle?
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, my kingdom is as great.
You have no power of me.”
Last year I stumbled across this at the EMP Museum in Seattle. I may have cried.